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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter I. Historicizing the Nation: Images of the Past, Continuity into the Present

History of the Hungarian war of independence of 1848–1849

Mihály Horváth
Traduction de Dávid Oláh

Texte intégral

1Title: Magyarország függetlenségi harczának története 1848 és 1849-ben (History of the Hungarian war of independence of 1848–1849)

2Originally published: Geneva, Miklós Puky, 1865

3Language: Hungarian

4The excerpts used are from the ‘Introduction’, pp. 3–7.

About the author

5Mihály Horváth [1809, Szentes (Southeast Hungary) – 1879, Karlsbad (Cz. Karlovy Vary, present-day Czech Republic)]: historian and Catholic clergyman. He was born into an impoverished family and studied theology at a Church seminary. After publishing a number of historical studies, he was elected a member of the Hungarian Academy in 1842. Horváth became a fervent participant in the reform movement as one of the major liberal cultural figures and the most important representative of the liberal clergy. In 1848 the revolutionary government nominated him bishop of Csanád. He was the only Catholic high churchman who followed the revolutionary government to Debrecen. In 1849 he served as Minister of Religious Affairs and Education in Bertalan Szemere’s government. After the defeat of the revolution he went into hiding and later escaped to Belgium. He was sentenced to death in absentia. Later he settled in Geneva, and wrote authoritative studies on the Reform Age and the history of the revolution. His most important work, ‘Twenty–five years of the history of Hungary,’ established the canonical historiographical image of the Hungarian ‘national awakening’ and had immense influence in keeping the cultural memory of the ‘1848 generation’ alive. Receiving amnesty, he returned in 1867 and supported the Compromise. In 1877 he became the president of the Hungarian Historical Society. He is considered the most important historian of the liberal nationalist tradition in Hungary.

6Main works: Az ipar és kereskedés története Magyarországban a három utolsó század alatt [The history of Hungarian industry and commerce in the last three centuries] (1840); Az 1514-iki pórlázadás, annak okai s következményei [The peasant revolt of 1514, its causes and consequences] (1841); A magyarok története [The history of the Hungarians] (1842–46); Huszonöt év Magyarország történelméből [Twenty-five years of the history of Hungary] (1864); Magyarország függetlenségi harczának története 1848 és 1849-ben [History of the Hungarian war of independence of 1848–1849] 3 vols., (1865); Magyarország történelme [History of Hungary] 8 vols., (1871–73).


7Hungarian historiography at the beginning of the nineteenth century was marked by a duality—a more professional genre of ‘official historiography’ written mostly in Latin and German and usually marked by an emphatically pro-Habsburg perspective (for example, the works of Johann Christian Engel), and a more popular genre written in the vernacular but falling short of the more strictly conceived criteria of scientific historiography (for example, the Magyar századok—‘Hungarian centuries’—by Benedek Virág). The situation changed dramatically by the 1830s, with the new wave of liberal nationalist historians writing in Hungarian. Mihály Horváth emerged, in the mid-1830s, as the most important historian of the liberal political movement. Following the ideas of German romantic historiography, as typified by Carl Rotteck, on the ancient egalitarianism of the Germans, and in line with other Central European historians of the period, for example, the Polish Joachim Lelewel, Horváth sought initially to identify the roots of the nation’s peculiar liberties in the archaic communitarianism of the early Hungarians when they were as yet uncorrupted by foreign models. Thus, in his ‘Comparison between the the civic and moral culture of the Hungarian nation in the time when they were moving to Europe and the Europe of those times’ (1835), he contrasted favorably the free and egalitarian society of the Hungarians at the time of their arrival in the Carpathian Basin (described as a ‘national family’) with the feudal anarchy of contemporary Europe.

8Horváth came to modify this vision in the context of the 1839–1840 Diet, which articulated a number of liberal demands for the support of national industry and the emancipation of the peasantry. Subsequently, he addressed questions of socio-economic progress in his works written under the direct influence of Wilhelm Wachsmuth and Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren, both prominent liberal historians of the Vormärz period, in whose works the inspiration of Enlightenment historical narratives (such as those of Montesquieu and Adam Smith) blend with Hegelian ideas. Horváth closely followed them in devising a stadial historical model, paying special attention to aspects of socio-economic progress and conceding that liberty was not merely a pregiven trait of the ancient national community but was the result of a dialectic development of socio-economic and political structures.

9In this way the historical works written by Horváth in the 1840s sought to promote the cause of the liberal opposition by gradually challenging the traditional vision of the nobility as the focus of the nation, extolling rather the historical role of commerce and the urban population and advocating an extension of the symbolic framework of the national community to the non-noble population as well. In his history of Hungarian industry and commerce he described the situation of Hungary under Austrian rule in straightforwardly ‘colonial’ terms, accusing the Viennese government of intentionally hindering the modernization of Hungary. His work on the history of the peasant revolt of 1514 went even further in such radicalism, championing the cause of the peasants and linking the ensuing vicissitudes of Hungarian history to the lack of solidarity between the privileged and non-privileged strata of society. His historical vision had a considerable impact, in particular on young radicals like Sándor Petőfi and Pál Vasvári (1826–1849), who became the protagonists of the 1848 revolutionary events.

10While Horváth’s early writings were marked by a radical democratic vision, his monumental works written after 1849 were more about ‘canonization’: providing the most influential liberal nationalist historiographical narrative of the course of Hungarian history, and especially the Reform Age and the 1848–49 revolutionary events. Many of his books were originally published abroad while he was in exile, but after his return they were republished in Hungary as well. The fact that Horváth was part of the revolutionary diaspora at the moment of writing the books is also important, as he was obviously intending to write an apology of his generation. Nevertheless, he managed to retain a remarkable impartiality and historical distance.

11In the ‘Introduction’ to the volume on the 1848–49 War of Independence, Horváth reiterates the main lines of the developments that preceded the Revolution. He describes the process in terms of the interrelatedness of literary and political renewal, pointing out that the cultural awakening brought along a radical transformation of the social and political framework as well. In his reading, the Reform Age, like any period of transition, had to find a balance between conservatism and anarchy, but it was successful in realizing its program of national and social emancipation. In the twenty-five years preceding the revolution, Hungary made a spectacular advance and created the preconditions for becoming a modern society. This period of achievement can be considered as the most glorious era in Hungarian history, even more important than the age of medieval glory. The emerging new Hungary ceased to be the property of the privileged classes—it became the “home of the whole nation.”

12According to Horváth, the Reform Age opened unlimited horizons for social and cultural development: literature, industry, commerce, sciences, urbanization, and civil liberties reached previously unattainable heights. The culmination of this process was the 1847–48 Diet, which introduced a series of political and social reforms. In addition, in March 1848 the first Hungarian government responsible to the Parliament was formed, and finally, in April, the first series of fundamental laws codifying the achievements of the Revolution was passed. In Horváth’s interpretation, these events fit into the general process of modernization, that is to say, the Revolution of 1848 and even the ensuing War of Independence cannot be considered a breach of continuity, as some of the loyalist-conservative pamphleteers claimed, since they represent the logical consequence of the liberal-democratic program of the Reform Age.

13Horváth stood at the intersection of different intellectual traditions. Even after 1849 his texts continued to be characterized by references and concepts that had their origins in the political philosophy and historical vision of the Enlightenment. He focused on the concept of politesse, the socio-cultural evolution of the society, and—even though he was a priest—the growth of secularization. At the root of his historical narrative, however, there stood a markedly romantic conception of the role of great ideas in history. It is along these lines that he described the spread of liberalism and nationalism as something that was inevitable, being rooted in the Zeitgeist.

14With his syntheses, blending the achievements of the Reform Age with the ‘hagiography’ of the War of Independence, he eminently contributed to the formation of the national historiographical canon. At the same time, his stress on the socio-economic progress made his conception ultimately compatible with the liberal narrative emerging after 1867, whereby the ‘Compromise’ was legitimized as a trade-off in which some of the political demands were given up in exchange for the opportunity of thorough modernization. It is as much due to his uncompromising liberalism as to his methodological flaws that the interwar generation of neo-conservative historians such as Gyula Szekfű considered him as the main target of their criticism of the ‘Whig interpretation’ of Hungarian history.


History of the Hungarian war of independence of 1848–1849


16The spiritual awakening that commenced in the second decade of our century with the renewal of our language and literature signifies the starting point of a new era of transformation in our national and state life. It affected this nation like an animating breeze; it engendered an upheaval in which the ancient traditional elements began to dissolve, and, as in a chemical test tube, new formations started to coalesce. Set into motion, society in its incessant activity has dug a new bed for itself, wide and deep like the ideas by which it has been stirred and guided—the ideas of independent nationhood, truth and liberty.

17In the material as well as the spiritual world, eras of transformation are always by necessity periods of crisis; for all transformations are nothing but struggles between rejuvenation and evanescence—between life and death. It is no wonder, then, that in social transformations the short-sighted, the timid, the egoist—beholding the dissolution of the old and either not able to conceive the coming rejuvenation or disliking the new developments out of concern for their own interests—see only turbulence, chaos and anarchy, and aspire to preserve the crumbling old order and to impede the development of the new one. It is no wonder that due to such contradictory aspirations, when the champions of the new notions are engaged in a life-or-death struggle against the protectors of the ancient order, society advances between two abysses: the abysses of despotism and licence, from which there is only a narrow path leading to the realms of well-ordered freedom.

18It was just such a transformation that the Hungarian nation experienced during the quarter of a century starting in 1823 and ending with the early days of 1848. The struggle between old and new, tradition and justice, tyranny and liberty, foreign influence and an independent, self-reliant nationhood went on uninterrupted and with persistent endurance, and concluded, as I have related elsewhere, with the guardians of the old order being pushed more and more backward, relinquishing space and triumph to their adversaries, while freedom and independent nationhood celebrated their victory.

  • 1 An allusion to a famous line by István Széchenyi in his programmatic work, Hitel (Credit).

19Without doubt, this quarter of a century was the most glorious period in Hungarian history. This nation has undeniably experienced eras that were more clamorous inwardly and more splendid outwardly, either when under the command of her great kings’ genius she stood as an authorative, superior power in the eastern part of Europe, letting her neighbors all feel the weight of her strength; or when Hungarians were camped in the vales of the Lower Danube and the Balkans as the guardians of Christian civilization, and restraining the sweeping torrent of Ottoman fanatism and barbarity with innumerable glorious triumphs. But ever since the adoption of Christianity a thousand years before, Hungarian history has never had such a splendid, such a humane period with such a crucial significance for herself as these twenty-five years. In the former, seemingly more brilliant eras the Hungarian nation was outwardly greater, weightier, more active; but in this brief period she laid the foundation of her inner greatness based on culture, justice and a spiritual and moral loftiness. Quietly rejuvenating, gradually developing, she underwent a complete transformation. By extending and consolidating first and foremost her basis of existence, she secured her own future, thus substantiating the prophecy a major actor1 in the movements of the era made at the beginning of his career: “The Hungarian nation belongs not to the past but to the future!” In her struggles she trained herself to become a champion of the new age in which the nations no longer fight against each other solely or indeed mostly by blood-shedding material weapons but use spiritual and even moral ones instead; in which the battlefield is the thousand-colored domain of peaceful pursuits; in which the final goal is science and art, industry and assiduousness, welfare and prosperity, the comfort and embellishment of life, human rights and justice for everyone, equality and liberty, brotherhood and progress on the endless course towards perfection.

20What had Hungary been before this era, and in particular in the times directly preceding it? A medieval state weakened by a thousand vicissitudes, which, lingering miserably amidst the ruins of her one-time greatness, lived only for the memory of the past; in which even her legal independence and her archaic, traditional constitution were increasingly repressed, curtailed and confined by the power of despotism.

21What had the Hungarian nation been before this era? A group of some hundred thousand individuals of the privileged classes, and beside them the millions of oppressed without any rights. A society unable to advance on the path of progress and thus fallen into decay, with obsolete institutions, rough and semi-cultured morals and an almost complete absence of the preconditions and means of welfare and culture. A backward, impoverished society whose every material, spiritual and moral interest languished in the same condition as they had been in the mid-eighteenth century; where landed property, in the hands of a few men, fettered by feudal institutions, yielded but a poor profit or even lay fallow; where industry and commerce stagnated in torpor, neglected, undervalued and undeveloped; where science and art were still slumbering in their cradles or were as yet unborn; where the institutes of education were mostly schools of blind faith and prejudice which left children spiritually dull and morally puny. A lifeless society sunk into slumber, where a thick mist enveloped its spiritual life, and the field of literature was illuminated for rare moments, as though by the light of a shooting star, by the genius of a solitary poet; a society which the light and nimbleness of nineteenth century civilization had hardly started to penetrate; whose social conditions were caught in the spell of immobility; in which no life, no association, no discourse existed, and all things were frozen in a deep slumber.

22And what has Hungary and the Hungarian nation changed into during this era? From a slow people brooding over its decay it became a lively, merry nation permeated by the vigor of youth, progress and growth. Her social conditions are rejuvenated, rising, developing and improving in all spheres. Perceptibly on the rise and cherished zealously by particular individuals and associations, industry and commerce, the markedly improving means of transport, steamship navigation, railways and roads are all increasingly developing—diffusing prosperity into every layer of society. Everyone studies and aspires to augment his knowledge and spread culture. Literature is developing at an amazing speed, and in proximity with it the arts are acclimatizing step by step: beside the necessities, the useful and beautiful are devotedly tended and cherished. Budapest, where the spiritual and material powers of the country are more and more concentrated, is enjoying a rapid rise; its population has doubled in number in a little time; from a middling provincial town it is becoming a European market, while its beauties and comforts are growing in proportion to its size. And in addition, some provincial towns are also starting to progress. The privileged classes are on the one hand claiming back for the country her legal independence, formerly impaired in so many ways, since the country has entered into a bond with Austria with regard to their joint sovereignty; on the other hand—and let us give thanks for their discretion, their selfless, humane and generous aspirations—they themselves take a lead in the reforms. In order to raise the homeland, the nation, from her lethargy, they voluntarily give up their centuries-long privileges, elevating to their own level the masses formerly destitute of any rights; they themselves struggle with unremitting zeal for the abolition of privileges against the government and its few allies alarmed by the phantoms of democracy, and they share in a brotherly fashion with the lower classes of the people the possession of land now free and all the blessings of the constitution, its rights and responsibilities. Thanks to their tireless efforts, labor and association, thought and conscience, pulpit and press are becoming free. Every new parliamentary session adds new liberties to the ones already attained, regaining one by one the various aspects of impaired, legitimate national independence. Every year brings on new growth of material and moral developments, constantly increasing prosperity, freedom, and culture, until the Parliament of 1847–48 completely re-establishes the nation’s legal independence on the one hand; while on the other hand, it puts through the reforms devised and debated with such a noble enthusiasm for twenty years, thus completing the splendid work of national transformation. In order to secure every individual and communal freedom and complete national independence, it establishes a common court beside the old municipal institutions as well as home guards, popular representation and a responsible parliamentary government; and, above all, it raises the free press to stand guard over individual, social and national liberties. […]


1 An allusion to a famous line by István Széchenyi in his programmatic work, Hitel (Credit).


Dávid Oláh (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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